Culture and Consensus – an African story

Culture can be a significant factor in whether or not consensus building can be effective. Some cultures support community developed and own decisions. Others favour individuals and the exercise of power by a minority over the majority. In this post we have an honest interview with Rev Dr Paul Mpongo from the Presbyterian Church in Congo.

TC:       Paul please tell us about your role in the church.

PM:      I am Deputy Legal Representative of the Presbyterian Church in Congo living in Kinshasa. I am also pastoring a small church congregation and teaching as Professor of Ethics and Theology in three universities.

TC:       What are some of the particular challenges that face the country and church in the Congo?

PM:      The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long and continuing history of civil war. Pervasive poverty means that 80% of its primary and secondary school buildings are in a very needy state. Poverty also prevents schools from providing books, desks, teacher training, equipment like chalkboards and scholarships for girls and orphans. Congo, currently ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. This is a measure of life expectancy, education and income per capita. Life is very difficult for many people and the churches try their best to improve the lives of people through education and health services.

TC:      You responded by email to me after a post about having the courage to move away from power to relationships. How do you see power operating in the churches in Africa?

PM:      Conflict in the African church is coming from the need for power, the love of money and tribalism. Power is the way that people get money, the way that they control things to get what they want.

In Africa tribal loyalties and hierarchy is very strong so people who have high standing expect power as their right. It goes against the dominant culture in tribal societies to give up power.

TC:       What other factors in Africa encourage people to cling to power?

MP:      Everyone wants to be bishop and a small god.

In Africa it is complicated to do consensus because democracy is not strong . Democracy does not have deep roots in Africa. Also much of the teaching that has been received, including in the churches, has emphasised the idea of strong leadership.

TC:       In a culture where there are many injustices, and power is the way of the world and the church, it must be very hard to talk about building consensus.

MP:      Many people in Africa – whether educated or illiterate – take over majority strategy as the way to deal with injustices and tribalism. This is what they know from their life experience. This is normal in our society. If people have power they get what they want. If they do not have power they often suffer.

Consensus has a great problem to fit with this mind. It is not a familiar idea in our culture.

TC:       Is change possible in the African context?

PM:      It is hard in Africa to come up to this mind.

We need more understanding from the perspective of God’s love than human rights and cultures. In the church we know that God’s ways are not like human ways. We need to look in the Scriptures and the witness of the early church to find encouragement and models for how to live without the power relationships of our human culture.

Church policy of consensus needs love and binding to others as members in the body of Christ. If we see each other as one body, serving the one cause of Jesus Christ we might change. Love and concern for all is the key.

TC:       Is it possible in Africa that people will give up power in favour of relationships?

PM:      The power of Jesus’ Spirit is strong and powerful to overcome our human limits.

We need courage to love each other and to accept each other. God calls us to love each other. We need to give this the highest priority. Exercising power over people must not be the first thing in our relationships in the church.

TC:       It sounds like it is very hard in the African church to deal with power.

PM:      Yes it is. But we must have the courage to be of a strong faith – which cannot go back and never fail because of hardship.

The courage required can also mean that the leader must have the will to leave the leadership post – even if people do not like you to quit.

TC:       Paul, do you have hope that relationships can take priority over the exercise of power in the churches in Africa?

MP:      I believe with the heart of love and humility, everything will be fine
in our churches.

A very special thanks to Dr Mpongo who has generously contacted me many times about our posts on this website. I encourage everyone to offer comments in the comments section at the end of every post.

25 Characteristics of Effective Groups

Are you in an Effective Group?

You know whether you are in effective small groups or not.  Am I right?

Recently, I changed Sunday School classes. The people in my previous class are really nice people. However the group rarely got into its Bible lesson without getting sidetracked by current events or politics. Some people were getting hurt by not agreeing with the majority view – others stopped attending. I simply grew frustrated. I was feeling that I was being held captive to someone’s rants or raves. It was not why I was there!

Can you identify with my experience? Sadly, many Christians do not feel that they’re a part of effective groups. Groups come in many forms – small groups for study or fellowship, a ministry team or a leadership Council. There are things that you can do to ensure your groups are effective.

How would you rate your group?

Think of groups to which you currently belong. Review this list of characteristics. It should be a group that meets regularly and has a clearly defined role. For each characteristic, rate your groups by circling a number at the end of the characteristic.

Key:    1=not really      5=so-so    10=on target

  1. Everyone arrives and leaves on time                            1     5     10
  2. Our leader is trained and effective                                 1     5     10
  3. Our group has a clearly defined purpose                     1     5     10
  4. All members participate                                                     1     5     10
  5. We communicate clearly and directly                          1     5     10
  6. Our discussions are focused and productive             1     5     10
  7. We don’t judge but seek to understand                       1     5     10
  8. We periodically evaluate how we are doing               1     5     10
  9. We have a set goal or agenda when we meet             1     5     10
  10. We pray for one another rather than prey                  1     5     10
  11. Our group accomplishes it’s goals                                 1     5     10
  12. We make decisions by consensus                                   1     5     10
  13. We all feel responsible for the group’s success        1     5     10
  14. We deal with conflict in a timely manner                   1     5     10
  15. We have a shared vision                                                      1      5     10
  16. Our group is growing as a team                                       1     5     10
  17. We do not pre-judge one another                                   1     5     10
  18. We value differences                                                             1     5     10
  19. We seek clarity not rambling                                            1     5     10
  20. No one dominates discussion                                           1     5     10
  21. We share information related to our task                   1     5     10
  22. We avoid group think or giving in to appease           1     5     10
  23. We use “I” statements                                                         1     5     10
  24. We test assumptions before making decisions         1     5     10
  25. We practice courteous communication practices    1     5     10

Tally up your score.

Look over your responses carefully.  Which column has the most circles?  Which has the least?  What does this tell you about your group? What are some specific ways your group can improve?

Conclusion

Being part of a group should be a good experience.  We have simply too many demands on our time to waste in a group that is not effective. I encourage you to not accept an under performing group. After you have analysed the group’s life talk to others about whether they share your concerns. You are unlikely to be alone in your thoughts. Then work out together what can be done to address each of the low scores. You don’t have to fix them all at once – but do make a start.

When to use a facilitator

Situations that deserve a third party facilitator

Determining when you need a neutral third party facilitator is an important leadership task.  In times of transition or in situations where the stakes are high, inviting a third party to facilitate a process with your group can make a positive difference.  Facilitators can model the skillsets necessary for your group to improve their interactions with one another.

If you recognize any of these situations in your organization, you may need the services of a third party:

  • Emotional level between parties is high with anger and frustration
  • Communication is poor
  • Stereotypical views of positions and motives are preventing resolution
  • Behavior is negative
  • Conflict is at a high level
  • Parties cannot agree on what information is relevant or required
  • Various issues are present or the matter is complex
  • Values differ greatly and parties disagree on what is fundamentally right
  • The task before you make you realise that “this is beyond us”

What is a third party facilitator?

A third party is a trained leader who is recognized for their ability to work well with a group. They get results.  Examples of a third party leader may be a Mediator, Litigator, or Process Facilitator.  They have usually been certified or have completed a training program.  Most important, they have the experience necessary to lead your group through a situation successfully.

Questions for Consideration:

  • Does the person have the skills necessary to help move your group forward?
  • Where were they trained? When?
  • Can the third party provide references from past work?
  • Are they available to work with you on your schedule?
  • Is their personality a good fit for your group?

How can I find a third party facilitator?

Locating someone who has the skills your group needs is important. Ask your peers who they have used in a similar situation.  Authors of books can also make an excellent resource. You can also find the right person on the internet by researching blogs, articles, and events related to your issue or need.

Hiring a third party facilitator

  1. Form a Hiring Team with the responsibility to come up with a recommendation.
  2. Find at least three people who meet the skills you are looking for in a third party.
  3. Contact each person and explain the situation your organization is facing. Let them know that they have been recommended to you and ask if they are interested in working with your group. Answer their questions.
  4. Ask them if they are interested in making a proposal for consideration of services. Be sure that they outline their approach and provide a cost for their services. Ask them to list 2-3 references.
  5. Once you receive their proposals, have your hiring team review them. Sort the applicants into first, second and third. Check references.
  6. Arrange an interview with those your Hiring Team thinks are worth talking to in detail. Decide a clear choice.
  7. Present your top choice to your leaders for their support.
  8. Contract the work and set the timeline and budget.

Conclusion

Leaders who decide hire a Third Party Facilitator to lead their group are smart. It is not possible for local leaders to be all things to all people. Choosing an effective third party frees you to participate in the process as well as learn new skills.  Follow the steps recommended in this blog to find the right person to do the work necessary to help your group resolve issues and move forward together. You will be glad you did!

 

 

 

12 ways to break an impasse in your group

What’s an Impasse?

 

An impasse can prevent your leaders from making an important decision in a timely way. Therefore being frozen – stuck in an impasse – can be detrimental to the very future of your organization.

In preparation for discerning the matter, presentations have been made outlining the situation and proposing a specific direction forward. Just when you think your organization is ready to decide the issue, the unfortunate occurs:  an impasse is reached. Another option has gathered support and the group is now split between the choices.  We call this situation an impasse.

An impasse is when there are two or more choices on the table and people are unable to choose one.  Yogi Bera once said when you come to a fork in the road:  take it.  This is disastrous advice!

Impasses can paralyze a group and prevent them from making decisions in a timely manner.  Sometimes this happens because two different options seem equally good.  An impasse may also occur because people have lobbied for support outside the meeting and people feel a sense of loyalty to key leaders and their ideas.  Miscommunication can also result in an impasse. When people are stuck and unable to embrace change, an impasse seems like standing still in a fork in the road.

Nevertheless, a decision is not going to be made unless you deal with the issues and feelings causing the impasse.

Basic Steps Forward

Here is a list of specific things that you can do to help your group move beyond an impasse to make a good decision.  Consider these steps the next time you find yourself in your organizational “fork in the road”:

  1. Break the key issue down into smaller parts. Flag the most difficult matters and reserve them for later.
  2. Ask the parties to share why a specific alternative is unacceptable to them.  Draw the conversation to the big picture – the goals and away from the detail – strategy / methods. Then, ask people what they like about an idea before them.
  3. Look for creative options that may arise. When people focus on a goal they can see many ways to achieve them. Creative ideas come from looking first at the main goal.
  4. Listen carefully for assumptions not based on fact and point them out.
  5. Once ideas and accurate information are out in the open be prepared to take a break. Ask the parties to use the break to think about the various alternatives presented.
  6. Reconvene and review the parties’ priorities and common interests. List them on newsprint for the group to refer to as they make their final decision.
  7. Recognising common ground really helps bring people together when they might otherwise see each other as opponents.
  8. Encourage the parties to recognize and acknowledge each other’s points of view.
  9. Ask the parties for their help to move forward. What would make it possible for them to make a decision? What are they willing to give up for the good of the entire community?  Look at the impact of various solutions on all involved.
  10. Ask the parties to indicate what would change or happen if they reached a solution.  This is an opportunity for people to share their feelings.  Make sure this is a safe experience. Encourage people to use “I” statements and be respectful.
  11. In serious stalemates, offer the parties mediation, as opposed to letting the conflict fester and grow.  Use a trained facilitator.  Help people to not take the matter personally.
  12. Choose a way forward.  Be sure to thank people for their hard work and diligence.  Let them know that they have modeled the very best witness to others in facing their differences.

What to do when you break an impasse?

Remember that there are people who are affected by the decision that did not make it. So make sure that you promptly, clearly and pastorally communicate the decision to the wider community. Be quick and try to keep ahead of the rumour mill!

Not everyone who was stuck in the impasse has had the benefit of the process that made it possible for others to move. Think about how it is possible to share that journey with others. This can make  it possible for them to take the emotional and intellectual steps through the impasse.

Celebrate. People have worked hard, respected their community and sought to be faithful. Give thanks.

Conclusion

An impasse does not have to divide your faith community!  With proper leadership and a clear process, it can be a situation that reminds your group of their values and help them reclaim them. Groups can emerge from an impasse stronger and in the future be better equiped to make good decisions in a timely manner.