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.

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Author: Terence

I am a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. My current ministries focus on consultancy and teaching about consensus based decision-making, mediation, governance training and professional supervision for Ministers. I am co-author of the book "The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together". I live on the beautiful Far South Coast of NSW from where I undertake ministry across the globe. Contact me at terence@makingchurchdecisions.com

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