Welcome to “Making Church Decisions”


This is the first post from makingchurchdecisions.com! Julia and I are very excited to be offering resources in support of consensus based decision making in the church. We hope that our site will be a place where we can learn from, and encourage each other. Greetings from the team.

Who we are

Julia is a layperson in the United Methodist Church who has served on the staff of the (Global) General Board of Discipleship based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her areas of expertise include: mediating disputes, assessing Congregational vitality, transforming conflict, and leading strategic change and visioning. Julia is a respected Keynote Leader, Facilitator and Consultant. Previous books include: “Partnersteps: Contemporary Cooperative Ministries” (Discipleship Ministries), and “Guidelines for the Small Church”(Abingdon). She produced the video “Small Churches Can Make a Big Difference!” (Discipleship Ministries). Julia has also written curriculum, articles and web resources


Terence is an ordained Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA).  He served 15 years as the General Secretary of the UCA Assembly. Terence was responsible for running many large national meetings for the Uniting Church using its consensus based approach to decision making. He has been engaged as a consultant in relation to alternative business procedures by the World Communion of Reformed Churches (twice), including for its 2017 General Council meeting in Leipzig Germany; and by the United Methodist Church (USA) for its 2016 General Conference. Terence is also a member of the Executive of the Christian Conference of Asia and a delegate to the 2016 meeting of the World Methodist Council. He is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and is a nationally accredited mediator.

Making Church Decisions – What we are doing

We will post articles once a week. The reason that we have produced this website is to support our book that Abingdon is publishing on May 2nd. It is called The Church Guide for Making Decisions Together. You can purchase the book through our virtual store. This arrangement with Cokesbury will be in place from May 2nd. We hope that you will use our “virtual store” as the small affiliate fee helps cover the costs of the website. There is a lot of good  material in the book. However there is also so much more that can be explored about consensus decision-making. We hope to provide a space through which people across the church, around the world, can raise their questions, share their experiences and develop resources. This will support leaders who want to move towards a healthier, more Christian way of doing group discernment. If you are interested in learning more about faithful and effective group discernment subscribe to our blog  or follow us on Facebook. Take culture and context seriously, be inclusive, prayerful, Spirit led, and true to Christian values. Join us at Making Church Decisions. Your comments will be a major contributor to the value of the website. So please start today by letting us know what you would like to discuss or to receive resources on.

What is a consensus approach to discernment?

What is consensus?

I’ve just spent a few minutes doing a search for quotes on consensus. Wow!!!! The quotes I found show that people have a lot of ideas on what is “consensus”. Apparently if I believe seeking consensus is important I might be a traitor, turn great ideas into mundane ideas, abandon all principles and beliefs, be a scam merchant and lacking in leadership. Clearly I need to say something about “consensus”!

The first thing to say is do not confuse consensus with compromise. Consensus is a perspective, an understanding, reached by a group. The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) call it “the mind of the meeting”.

Compromise always has a focus on getting what I want. Compromise trades off some of my interests to get some others interests met in return. In contrast consensus seeks the interests of the organization, the cause, the whole – not the interests of the individual decision makers. Through a search for consensus people find words that can all say what all deeply believe.

The convergence texts that have come out of the World Council of Churches and other international church bodies on key theological positions are examples of this. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church have not compromised their positions on justification. However it has been possible for them to sign a significant convergence document on justification just a few years ago.

Of course there will be times in consensus building when our preferred words, emphases or priorities are set aside. However we do not put them aside to gain something for ourselves. We put aside personal preferences in the interests of the group as a whole, and the common cause that the members share.

Leadership and consensus

Martin Luther King Jnr observed: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” I take this to mean that consensus is an outcome that results from a process. A good leader provides a process through which it is possible for a group to fashion a common mind on the subject at hand.

From a theological perspective consensus – a common mind – is always possible when we seek the will of God. We know how rare that seems. Yet to abandon seeking consensus denies that it is possible to know God’s will.

A consensus building approach is a set of processes and tools that may be used by a leader. They will, as Martin Luther King Jnr said, allow you to be a “molder of consensus.”

What’s the point of consensus?

Consensus building is not an end. It is a process that makes it possible for a group to reach high levels of agreement on things that matter to them. It does this by being

  • Biblically based
  • theologically sound
  • sociologically relevant
  • culturally appropriate
  • faith-encouraging

The end point of consensus building is not to get agreement for its own sake. A genuine experience of consensus gives confidence that a community is in tune with what God wants as a decision. The end point of consensus is not agreement – it is discernment.

Discernment is a spiritual experience. Therefore discernment means that you recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. You recognise God is present.

So, when consensus building takes place in the church it is a journey in community towards experiencing the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit.

Have you had experiences of the Holy Spirit’s leading in your community? We would be greatly encouraged if you share when you have discerned the leading of the Holy Spirit. Please add a comment.

5 questions to ask when thinking about moving to consensus based discernment



Making big changes requires planning. One way to develop a plan is to ask some basic questions around what you are thinking of doing. If you are thinking of moving your local church Board, congregation, or committee to consensus based discernment then I expect that you have a lot of questions. Be sure to leave your questions at the end of this post. We would love to have a chance to respond to them

Exactly what questions you have will be affected by your context and how far along you are towards abandoning the failed parliamentary style of decision-making. Most people will have a lot more than 5 questions. But let’s make a start with 5. I suggest that you begin by thinking of your questions in terms of what, who, when, where, how.

What do I want to achieve?

Are you clear on your goals for making the change? If you do not have a compelling, motivating narrative to share with others then you will struggle to bring people along with you. So before you answer the “what” question think and read about the benefits of a consensus based discernment process. Then focus on the spiritual outcomes and Christian character of this discernment process. But hey, it’s your story. I’d love to hear what your motivations are at the end of post.

Who will I work with to bring change?

You are not alone in your desire for change. Identify the people around you who have a similar yearning for a more authentically Christian, respectful, inclusive, culturally relevant, effective and efficient process for your church meetings. Talk to them about your hopes. Listen to theirs. Encourage and build each other up Work as part of a team for change. Going out on your own may be necessary in some situations but it isn’t Plan A.

This journey may be new to you but there are leaders from all around the world who have been on this path before you. This website, its blogs, our training events, our Facebook page (@makingchurchdecisions) are among the places where these leaders meet, support and share experiences and ideas. Reach out to people through these avenues and be part of our community of learning and encouragement. Post a request or question at the end of this blog.

When will I make a start?

Start when you have done your homework and the Spirit leads you. Know why you are proposing a change. Gather around you a local team who share your vision. Develop your knowledge so that you can articulate and implement an alternative process.

But don’t wait until you know everything that there is to know before venturing into using the principles and tools of consensus building discernment. Once you understand the core principles then it is possible to design a meeting process that uses them. The techniques vary a little in their complexity depending on the size and type of group but mostly they are quite simple. Any local church Committee, Board or congregational meeting can use consensus building techniques – so give it a go as soon as you can.

Where will I try consensus building discernment?

Lead where you have the opportunity to lead. Some of you will be leading in small groups and others in regional, state wide or national contexts. God has called you into leadership in that place so that’s where you can change to a more healthy, life giving discernment process.

Mostly I recommend that people walk before they run. Whatever the size and complexity of your context there will be places that are more simple and easier to change. So you might build up your experience in Committees or Boards. If you lead Districts or Presbyteries you don’t have to run the whole meeting using a new process the first time that you introduce it. Just use a different process for one or two pieces of business.

A consensus building approach to discernment can be accommodated in any church’s polity or system of government. Just use the process to build as much consensus as possible and when necessary shift to the conventional way of making the decision. You can use consensus building discernment in your setting.

How will I do it?

Prayerfully, carefully, respectfully develop a vision for what is possible, identify others whom the Holy Spirit is leading and work with them. Then make some suggestions about how your meetings might be run differently.

Sometimes the challenge is how to get a conversation for change on to the agenda of a group. Several easy ways to start a conversation include:

  •     hold a leader’s retreat on the spiritual practice of group discernment
    • in your annual Board review of its performance as a Board include questions about which meeting processes people feel good about or not, and why
    • devotions at a meeting could look at texts like 1 Corinthians 12: 4-7 and members asked what the implications are for their meeting practice
    • write a case study on a meeting that went particularly badly and unpack why it was so and explore what other options would have led to a better result
    • Do you have any other ideas – please share them at the end of the post.

Five questions

Just fill in the blanks by answering these questions.

What do I want to achieve?

Who can I work with?

When will I make a start?

Where will I try out my new ideas?

How will I go about bringing in change?

Ask your questions at the end of the post and they may lead to a future blog topic.

6 things I wish they taught me about church meetings

When I went to theological college / seminary we didn’t have any lessons on how to run church meetings. There was no lesson that made clear that our church meetings were for seeking discernment. This is what I wish I  was taught.

  1. It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God

A possible notice for your church bulletin: the Holy Spirit will be leading the Property Committee on Wednesday at 7.30pm to discern the will of God for our congregation.

You don’t hold meetings in the church. Christ calls you into a community of discernment. God is calling you to listen and learn. God calls and gifts people to make decisions – for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Often people turn up at meetings  to pursue their own agenda. A lot of meetings are held just because it’s a certain date on the calendar. Many meetings end with people saying “What was the point of that meeting?!” Wrong, wrong, wrong. You don’t want those kinds of meetings!

Every church meeting is an opportunity to understand what Jesus wants from your community of faith. You are not involved in simple meetings. You are part of God’s unfolding drama of salvation. Church meetings are caught up in the divine purposes of God. Awesome!

  1. God’s will can be known

In your personal walk of faith you can probably tell lots of stories about how you have been led by God. The bedrock assumption of the Gospel is that it is possible to know the will of God. Great. So how do you live that out when you hold meetings in the church?

Apply your conviction that the will of God can be known to the way that you approach church meetings. What difference would it make if you planned and participated in meetings believing that God  makes it possible to have unity with God and to be obedient?

It is not always easy to discern the will of God. For the Christian – whether in private or as part of a group – there is no other game in town. If you are not interested in discerning the will of God for your community why do you even hold any church meetings?

All the barriers that prevent our capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, you are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God, and empowered to do so. God will lead you.

  1. Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment

The goal of Christian decision-making is to participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for you and your faith community. Therefore your meetings are spiritual exercises. Discernment (making Godly decisions together) is the goal and the purpose of church meetings.

Your church meetings have a spiritual destination – discernment. Spiritual results come from using spiritual resources. Unfortunately there are too many stories around the church about church meetings that look like the worst of political power plays and the serving of self-interest. Let’s not go there! Let’s think about spiritual results from using spiritual practices.

If you want to find God in your meetings then use the tools that God has given you – all the way through the meeting. Prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, deep listening to others, waiting for the Holy Spirit’s leading, confession, forgiveness, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are resources often neglected in church meetings.

You don’t make a cake by using ground beef and gravy. You don’t get discernment unless your meeting includes the spiritual practices that make discernment possible.

  1. Use Christian practices of discernment

If you had a lesson on running a meeting in seminary it probably involved turning up the section of the rule book that talked about moving motions, seconding, points of order, taking a vote, etc. In many churches the rules are based on parliamentary processes, and follow its style of debate and decision making. Robert’s Rules of Order is the classic presentation of this approach.

I know that God can use anyone to serve God’s purposes. The Persian emperor Cyrus comes to mind. But do we really want to put God to the test by continuing to use practices that have zero to do with Christian discernment?

What is Christian about trying to score points at the expense of another person? Where is the Holy Spirit in shutting down a debate by moving that “the motion be put”? How is the body of Christ built up when people’s contribution to discernment is crushed through political maneuvering? If knowledge is power; how is it Christian to keep the knowledge to a few and not share it with everyone? What is honorable, good and right about sowing confusion in order to prevent a motion being passed? How is the body of Christ respected when meeting procedures favor articulate, well educated, aggressive, usually, white men?

There is nothing inherently Christian in Robert’s Rules of Order. The people of God have a wonderful and effective set of resources and processes for discerning God’s will –  and most churches refuse to use them.

  1. What to do when people disagree

Call for the vote. That’s what I learned. So, if it is clear what the majority support just close down the debate. Being pastoral was shown by not letting arguments go on and on. It was considered to be for the best to not get people all riled up with each other.

I don’t see it that way any longer. If knowing the will of God were that easy then everyone would be doing it. It isn’t easy for theological, sociological, capacity and willingness reasons. We will have disagreement until we reach the mind of Christ on an issue. Disagreement – a lack of consensus – is a sign that our journey towards discernment is not over. Instead of being a reason to shut down the discussion, disagreement should be embraced as a place for the possibility of revelation.

Christ only has one mind on an issue. So expect that the Church, the Body of Christ, will come to agreement when it has discerned Christ’s will on a particular topic. Disagreement is the doorway through which insight will be found. Disagreement is not a problem to be fixed but a sign of the promised answer to be welcomed.

When there is disagreement

  • Create a culture of acceptance and safe spaces where people can feel secure in offering a different point of view.
    • Give people a chance to speak about what concerns them and their ideas.
    • Show respect.
    • Listen carefully and ask questions to help your understanding.
    • Be honest with yourself about why you have difficulty accepting another point of view.
    • Pray and seek the Holy Spirit.
    • Take your time – work in God’s time not yours.
    • Don’t rush.
  1. Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

When you are recruiting for your church Board or Committees what are you looking for? Many recruitment processes include a skills matrix so that all the important skills are included in church Committees. This is a very wise thing to do.

When that process has been completed there is no guarantee that you will have the ability to discern God’s will in your group. Without the right character and attitudes in the membership of your church Board you don’t have a community of discernment. You have sets of skills sitting on seats.

Group discernment is impossible if the people in the group do not know how to practice discernment in their own life. Cultivate in your Board members the character of humility. People who know everything cannot be led by the Holy Spirit.

Expect and seek evidence that your group members engage in the practices of personal spiritual discernment – solitude, silence, engaging the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, prayer, growing is self-awareness. A leader who is not able to discern what is going on inside of him/herself cannot discern what is true or false outside of him/her.

Having developed a life habit of seeking the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life you can join with others in this discernment of the Spirit in shared responsibilities.

Six things that I would have liked to learn earlier in my ministry:

  • It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God
    • God’s will can be known
    • Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment
    • Use Christian practices of discernment
    • What to do when people disagree
    • Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

What things have you learned about Christian group discernment? What questions or comments do you have on these approaches? Let’s learn together by hearing your comments.

8 myths about why consensus doesn’t work









This post presents eight excuses people make for not using consensus based discernment and offers answers to these objections.

  1. The process takes too much time

Have you ever been in a church meeting where a person thinks they have a license to talk for the sake of hearing their own voice? I have certainly seen a lot time spent talking in traditional church meetings. A consensus building approach honors and seeks all voices. However it also has processes and disciplines that limit the input to make it timely and relevant.

You have been to many meetings where business is determined quickly because it is not complicated or contentious.  It is a red herring to suggest that consensus based discernment can’t move these matters along just as efficiently.

On the other hand we have all been present when contentious or complicated business takes a lot of time. How many times have you been in a long queue at the microphone with many amendments in a parliamentary style of decision-making? Contentious matters always take time. The question is how best to use the time that is available.

In my experience a consensus approach to decision-making can be much faster than the alternatives. It can be faster because:

  • people collaborate to find solutions
  • points of agreement and disagreement can be quickly identified and the effort put into addressing differences
  • changes to the original wording can be agreed upon through less rigid procedures
  • people focus on the issues rather than going off on tangents
  • there is less confusion because people ask all their questions before the deliberation starts.
  1. It all gets too messy

Hands up if you think Robert’s Rules’ claim to be clear, predictable and transparent is a case of false advertising.  I used to be in church meetings that used a parliamentary style of decision-making. All those amendments and foreshadowed amendments, points of order, personal explanations, moving the previous question and so on. Way too messy and confusing!

If you are like me, anything that is unfamiliar seems strange and sometimes out of control. When you first observe a church using consensus-building approaches for discernment you might think it has the look of a free-for-all. However it has an order, customs and practices, techniques, and rules, and they work. Yes, they only work as well as the chairperson of the meeting, but that is true for any business procedure.

  1. Emotions take over, dumbing down the debate

Wow is this is a values-laden objection! I like intellectual rigor, logical argument, and reason as much as anyone. However I have learned to value and affirm other ways of gaining insight. This myth is saying that the only tools that lead to insight and wisdom are in the part of the brain that does all that logical stuff. Is that your experience of life?

Western enthusiasm for reason, logic, and intellectual rigor, and its antipathy to story and emotions as a way of discerning the will of God, owes more to the culture of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason than it owes to the witness of the scriptures. Other cultures value story and feelings very much more than western society. How do you learn?

Acts 15:1-18 shows Peter, Paul, and Barnabas telling stories of the work that God is doing among the Gentiles. They share experiences, reference scripture, and offer reasons – all of which contribute to laying the ground for taking a particular course of action.

John Wesley encouraged Christians to practice discernment in their daily lives. Doing so allows us to align our words and actions, to the best of our ability, to God’s will. His methodology is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  These are four reference points to help us navigate a course for discerning God’s will. The reference points are, as in Acts 15, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

I have had to unlearn a lot of myopic enthusiasm for the intellect as I have learned how to better participate in discerning the will of God. Thank you to all the patient people who have helped me to see that far from being an intrusion, experience – shared through stories and emotions – is indispensable to discerning the will of God.

  1. Consensus is a lowest common denominator decision

When have you seen compromises take place in church meetings? What was involved? Did it feel right to you? Consensus is not another word for “compromise”. Compromise is when people trade off what is important to them so that they can at least get something from a decision.

Compromises sell short the aspiration to be faithful to God’s will in favor of a human political decision. I’ve seen a lot more examples of seeking the lowest common denominator to get a vote passed in a parliamentary process than I have in a discernment process that is grounded in Christian practice. Consensus in Christian discernment is not compromise. Consensus is achieved when a community has prayerfully and carefully sought and discerned Christ’s will for his church.

A decision not to proceed in the way that was originally proposed isn’t a failure in my book. Discernment opens up additional alternatives to “yes” or “no”. Sometimes the way of Christ’s leading is that more time is required for prayer and discussion, more information needs to be gathered, or other groups to be consulted. Taking God’s time to bring a community to an awareness of what faithfulness requires is the highest choice not the lowest.

  1. The Church will lose its prophetic voice

I can find no evidence for this claim. A prophetic statement is not more likely when made in the face of a significant minority that opposes a decision.

God has a people to serve God’s mission – including being prophetic. It is theologically irrefutable that God can bring that group to a shared commitment to that prophetic act. To say otherwise is to deny the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead people.

In a consensus-building approach to discernment there is a principle that the community of faith, prayerfully gathered, and working together is better placed to discern the will of God. When people have this theological understanding I have seen people defer to the wisdom of the whole group and stand aside to allow a decision to be taken. Churches and groups that seek to build consensus create a culture of collaboration that includes expressions of humility. This means that people don’t fight tooth and nail to the bitter end. Instead they willingly support the group even when its view is different to their personal preference. In my experience this makes it more likely that a prophetic decision will be made with a large majority in support.

  1. A small fringe group can veto and prevent action

A consensus approach places a high value on sensitively listening to minority voices. Even so, consensus processes have ways to move forward in the face of people whose resistance is a political strategy of obstructionism rather than a genuinely held belief. The experience of consensus-seeking churches is that this emergency measure is rarely needed. The changed culture of the church makes it less likely that people engage in obstructionist behavior.

  1. Can we trust this process?

Spiritual practices that give rise to the leading of the Holy Spirit can be unnerving for some people. Logical argument doesn’t always seem able to describe what is going on. Trusting the movement of the Holy Spirit in a church group is sometimes harder, it seems, than trusting human wisdom.

Every human process and institution is open to abuse. It is naive to think that some people will not try to use a new discernment process to advance their agenda. I’m sure we have all been around enough to know that human frailty and sin is present in the church. However that is not an excuse to abandon what is otherwise a process clearly grounded in Christian values and practices.

Consensus building churches around the world demonstrate a capacity to hold people accountable for their behavior, and to call people to faithful participation in the process.

  1. There’s nothing wrong with the way we do things

Are you nervous about leaving the traditional method of making decisions? Does the fear of the unknown mean you make allowances for problems with the current business procedures? Are you like someone living in an abusive relationship who doesn’t leave because you keep making excuses for your abuser?

The parliamentary way of doing church business excludes many voices. It privileges others, encourages political manoeuvring, and often leaves people hurt, demoralised and disengaged. What’s wrong with that picture? In consensus building discernment we draw on long standing Christian practices and principles to get where God wants to take us – knowing the will of God for our community of faith.

What objections have you heard to consensus based discernment? What concerns do you have that need to be addressed before you can enter into this faithful way of church life? What answers do you offer to the doubters? We’d love to hear your comments.