A sound decision-making process needs good preparation. So put in place the steps to be effective. This series of four posts walks you through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. The first step is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision.The final step 4 is to implement the decision.
How you begin the work of making decisions affects how you complete it. Preparation is the crucial first step. “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 86 – 92; and the Checklist on page 184. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.
In this step of the process focus on organisation. Therefore give attention to the following elements. Then you will cover all the important parts of this phase. Overlooking any of the following six steps can lead to significant negative consequences. Do not underestimate the value of good preparation!
Name the decision to be made
People need to know what is being asked of them. So put clearly into words the issue, and the form of the proposal. This clarifies what is being considered. Then people can pray and think wisely about the issue.
Provide information about the possible decision (i.e. the proposal). Also include how and when the decision will be made. People in an organisation are more likely to accept a decision if there is transparency. People need to understand and trust the process or they will want to go over the issue again and again. So tell them the process!
You have told people the issue / proposal being considered. They know when it will be considered ,and the process that will be used to come to a decision. In addition people need to know who is making the decision. In a local church context this may seem obvious. However when a decision is contentious it is well worth reminding the wider group who has been trusted to lead in this area of decision-making. This is a way of building confidence and trust. If there is an external facilitator involved it is important to share, widely, who they are and why they have been selected.
The first stage of preparation is to let the decision makers, and those affected by the decision, know what is happening. Be as clear as you can.
Design the Process
Consider forming a Process Planning Group to assist in this task. This group will take the leadership (perhaps the responsibility) for designing an effective process. Their role is to draw a road map for the journey towards discernment. On this map will be:
+ Communication strategies for the community affected by the decision.
+ Communication strategies for the decision makers.
+ A process for use within the meeting. It will cover information sharing, ways to explore an issue, strategizing about how to include all voices and how to generate creative options to resolve the matter, etc.
+ The timeline for making a decision – it doesn’t all have to be in one meeting!
Fill key leadership roles
Name the meeting chair (this is often a person already elected). If you decide to have small group discussion as a part of the process, design the groups and ensure they are inclusive. Recruit small group leaders and schedule as many training sessions as required to make them ready. When making decisions on matters that have a profound impact on your organisation we recommend that you utilize a trained facilitator to guide the process.
Support the entire process with prayer and other spiritual practices
Don’t forget to call a season of prayer, and if appropriate, fasting for the entire process. If there are Bible passages that people can helpfully study and meditate on, make these known. Immerse your community in the process. Provide knowledge about what is happening. It is nothing less than discerning the will of Christ for His church on this issue, in this place, at this time. This is a spiritual undertaking.
Set Meeting Guidelines
Be clear about who can participate in the process. Also be able to say what they need to know in order to participate. Now is the time to list respectful ways to work together (listen deeply, ask clarifying questions, be in a spirit of prayer, etc). If you don’t have a Behavioral Covenant now may be a good time to make one. Make these guidelines known well ahead of time.
Provide a safe environment to meet
The location of the meeting matters. The space you choose should allow for people to clearly see and hear each other. We recommend setting the room up in a circular pattern to promote a sense of community. If necessary have a sound system. Think about hospitality and comfort – respect and care for the people who are making the decision.
If you do not already have one, consider establishing a behavioral covenant to guide respectful interactions with people. If you have one ensure that it is before people and they commit to following it.
Do not assume that people know to communicate well with one another. Encourage people to listen before speaking, to ask clarifying questions so they understand what is said, not to monopolize the conversation, etc.
If you take time to prepare your decision-making process, you will lay the groundwork for a good experience and make better decisions. The goal of your preparation is to give people confidence in the process and therefore to be better able to accept the outcome.
Making changes in any organisation may result in failure. Moving toward a consensus based process of making decisions is no different. Avoid these 5 factors and improve your chance of successfully bringing in consensus discernment.
It takes time and energy to bring change. Obviously there are factors that can lead to failure when implementing change. However it is well worth the effort when you hear people exclaim that they have finally worked together faithfully to discern the will of God. Anyone can make a decision – it takes a faith community to discern a Godly direction!
The process outlined in our book, “The Church Guide For making Decisions Together” involves Preparation, Invitation, Deliberation, and Action. When done properly, people will feel good about the decisions they make together. When not done properly, people feel cheated and misled. There are ways to reduce the risk that your change process will lead to failure.
Here are 5 major mistakes that leaders often make when introducing a consensus building approach to making decisions. Watch out for, and guard against, these 5 factors that lead to failure.
Failure to model the approach
From the Chairperson to the newest participant, active listening and respect for one another is crucial when making decisions. Leaders must be genuine in wanting to hear all points of view. Show patience and careful listening in their Deliberative Sessions. Be sure to ask people what they mean if it is not clear. Help those who need it to say what is on their mind. This helps people see how it works. Once confident, they will be willing to try it in their own context.
Failure to adequately prepare people
People deserve to know what is expected of them in this discernment process and how to engage fully. This is the same with anything new. Therefore, there is no substitute for an Orientation Session that explains the process well and how to participate. When people are confused they make mistakes or find it hard to trust the leadership. As a result they will complain and drag their feet.
Another failure in preparation is not forming inclusive and diverse small groups ahead of time. Neglecting to identify and train the small group facilitators to guide their work is a recipe for disaster. We recommend hiring a Process Facilitator for the first time the process is used in large groups. This ensures that no preparation is missed and leaders are trained and participants engaged.
Failure to ask open questions
Open questions (one’s that cannot be answered by “yes” or “no”) lead to a good discussion and creativity. If people are offered only the chance to agree or disagree the conversation quickly grinds to a halt. Examples of open questions are: “What might be some of the things we need to take into account about this idea?” “How do you feel / respond / think about that comment?”
All too often, leaders unintentionally ask questions that lead people in a specific direction. “Do you believe that…?” “Don’t you agree that…?” “Should we do this?” Questions from the Chairperson can make people feel like they are being railroaded into a particular direction. Therefore a consensus building decision-making process crafts questions that engage people around both the possibilities and consequences of their decision. Powerful questions include: “What do you need to know in order to make this decision?” “Why is this issue important to you?”
Closed questions close off discussion. However open questions generate the response necessary to generate new insights and options. They make it possible to complete the process with integrity.
Failure to get the right people to the table
Who would throw a party and not make a guest list? Silly, right? Leaders who have an important decision looming need to give thought to who should be involved in making it. When possible, leaders (as well as stakeholders) should work together. This eliminates the mistake of making assumptions or not making decisions based on reality.
Failure to provide enough time for the process
We have seen facilitators not schedule the process wisely. So inadequate time is provided for Information Sharing and not enough time for the small groups to complete their discussions. Time spent doing these things well means that the time used in moving to a decision is often much quicker. Yes, this process invests more time than a traditional “Let’s vote!” approach in the information and discussion stage. However it gets results because the best options for action get raised, there are less amendments from the floor, and reduced confusion about what is being decided. Plus, less time is spent revisiting issues later with this approach! The book lists various tips that save time. These include the use of colored cards to gauge feelings without the need for people to make speeches at the microphone.
With knowledge, you can avoid making these mistakes. Reading our book: “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” and using the process in your setting will work. Send specific questions to us through this site and we will respond. We are also available for consultations and training. Contact us for more information at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we wrote our book we wanted to support you in bringing about change. Therefore it is our sincere hope that you will use our book to bring about change. We all know that “Shift Happens!” However we also know that it does not happen by accident. It takes intentional action.
So, here are some practical ideas to make the transition in your ministry context. It is time to move from the traditional method of making decisions based on Robert’s Rules of Order. Now is the time to change to a more faith-based process for making decisions. You can get the book at Cokesbury or Amazon.
Organise Reading Groups
Get the book into the hands of key members by organizing groups to read and discuss the book. Then name a convenor for each group and have groups meet in homes for prayer and discussion. Read and discuss a chapter a week – this will take only 8 weeks to complete the study. A basic outline for discussion can include: What seems important to you in this chapter? How could we use this material in our church? What might need to change around here? What questions do you have about this chapter?
Use the Guide as Sunday School Curriculum
Offer the book to Adult Sunday School Classes, or home groups for discussion. Study a chapter a week. Ask teachers to provide a short (say, 10 minute) synopsis of the chapter. Use the Reflection Questions at the end of each chapter to guide discussion.
Name the book as a ‘must-read’ for your Congregation and order books for purchase by individuals. Provide a one page outline with reflection questions to help people move through the book.
Assign a chapter to various leaders and ask them to present the highlights of their section at your Church Council or Judicatory Meeting. This Report should be no more than 20 minutes long. End each report with the question: “How can we do this here?” or “Why is this important to us?”
Read the book and design a series of sermons on the highlights. Use a Biblical text from each chapter to cover key thoughts and practical application. Be prepared to advocate for change.
Pastor’s Bible Study Class
Consider offering a series of classes on the Scripture and topics covered in each chapter. Also be sure to include some of the activities listed at the back of the book to get students involved.
Use the material at a Leadership Retreat. Focus on the material you would like to use to bring change in your Church Board or Council meetings. For example; plan a 4-hour session on a Saturday to cover the decision making process in the book and discuss implementing it. Be sure to make this occasion a positive team building exercise with fun, music and a meal. Then at the end of the session by name an Implementation Team to plan next steps.
Lead a Workshop on our Consensus-Based Decision-Making Process
Read the book and provide a brief outline for leaders in your Judicatory or Church Council. Design a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation on the content on the process. Start with a “Values Clarification” Activity. Place words on a sheet that list possible values of your group. A sample of words may include: family, love, peace, honesty, organization, loyalty, growth, discernment, discipleship, Bible-based, community, respect, openness, patience, etc. Invite people to underline 5 words on the handout that they believe are important to them about the group. When this step is finished, invite participants to star 2 words that are really vital to them. Have them cross off one of the two words with stars and circle the remaining word. Ask people what was the hardest word to give up. Then, ask for the word they feel is most important. Lead a discussion on how their method of making decisions respects their values as a faith community.
Mentor and Guide another Person
Think of a person in your ministry context that holds relational power to get things done. This person could be your Church Council Chair or someone else. Invite them to read the book. Plan a meeting with them to discuss what they have found helpful to use in your setting. Then discuss what it would take to apply the process in your context.
Introduce Leaders to Elements of this Process
People may be used to a basic parliamentary process of making amendments, suggesting substitutions and voting on ideas. They may not be aware that there is another, community-based way of making decisions. Introduce elements that are vital in consensus based discernment but that can be used in any system. For example, being sure to allow time to ask questions for clarification, find ways to help the less vocal people to contribute, set up methods for helping people to really listen to each other, encourage people to slow down and not rush to a decision, etc.
Use the book at a “Clergy Day Apart”
A powerful way to get Pastors interacting with a new process is in a collegial learning setting. Be sure to take the time to provide a basic overview of the book. Consider inviting 2 or 3 people to make a presentation on a specific topic or chapter. Encourage open and honest sharing of the positive responses and reservations about change. Allow time for participants to complete some of the activities at the back of the book and reflect on how they can use the process in their setting.
Once you have read the book and see it’s value – don’t stop there. Choose one of the ideas mentioned above to introduce the book’s content to your organisation. If you can, please order copies of the “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” from Cokesbury or Amazon. The small commission we receive helps us to maintain this site. Finally, post your experience on how you are using this book with us on this web site. We look forward to hearing from you.
Drafting Groups are the most contentious part of a consensus building approach to discernment. Sending proposals to small groups where members discuss them is a strategy that can be used for complex business. These discernment groups have a facilitator who works through a well prepared process. Their views, along with recommendations for changes and new ideas, are sent to a drafting group. The role of the drafting group is to bring all the ideas together.
Devils or Angels?
The most frequent objection to this process is that drafting groups have a lot of power. Cynics say that this small group can impose its views on the meeting and manipulate the process to achieve what it wants. The members of Drafting Groups are sometimes accused of being self serving and manipulative.
Drafting (sometimes called Facilitation) Groups take the information that has been provided through a small group discussion process. After attending to all the input they re present the views that have come to them. They do this by writing a report that is presented back to the meeting in a plenary session. The report explains what was reported to them, what they did with the information and why they made the decisions that they did. Drafting Groups help the members to have their say and to influence the final outcome of the discussion. If this group did not exist then the small group time would just be a lot of hot air.
Why you can have confidence in Drafting Groups
People are appointed who are known to be fair, trustworthy and true servant leaders
Members are not chosen to represent interest groups but because of their skills and maturity
Response sheets that are used in Discernment Groups are prepared by an experienced leader and are in a standard format
Reports from the Drafting Group explain every step of its work and the reasons for any new proposals that they bring
Members can ask questions of the report and have to receive it
If the new proposals do not reflect the developing consensus in the meeting then there will be significant push back
The Drafting Group makes no decisions but seeks to support the discernment of the members of the meeting
Trust is an important part of any meeting process. Appointing the right people and using tried and tested reporting formats means that members can have great trust in Drafting Groups.
Rev Norbet Stephens was Chairperson of the Drafting Group at the recent General Council meeting of the WCRC. He acknowledges that it is a challenging process, but with a skilled team it is possible to produce proposals that move forward the process of discernment. Hear Norbet in his own words.
Consensus discernment processes have many parts. Discernment Groups are one very important strategy for discernment. However groups need leaders – facilitators.
The WCRC, an international ecumenical gathering meets every seven years. About 1,000 delegates attend from over 350 churches. They come from diverse church and social cultures. The meetings operate in four official and two other languages. To run its Discernment Groups the meeting used 18 facilitators.
First time users of consensus discernment
This is the second post where we share with you the experiences of some people who were in Leipzig. Many participants who are sharing in these blogs experienced consensus discernment for the first time. We trust that they will be an encouragement to you. They speak about the value of, and possibilities for, consensus discernment. We hope that you will share their stories widely.
Rev Dr Gonda is Associate Professor in Missiology and Ecumenical Studies at Debrecen Reformed Theological University. The General Council meeting held six sessions for Discernment Groups. Laszlo, a first time facilitator for this methodology, led one of these groups for their six sessions.
His reflections include that this methodology
helps the church to be true to its character
encourages us to listen to each other but also to listen for what the Spirit is saying to the churches through one another
avoids the trap of winners and losers
allows Christians to express what it believes about the church – we are one
encourages Christ like behavior
I invite you to spend a couple of minutes listening to Laszlo share about his experience in his own words.