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.

My 5 Consensus New Year Resolutions

 

It is late January and many New Year resolutions will have fallen by the wayside. The good news in this post is that you get 5 consensus New Year resolutions. Change is possible. So if you don’t achieve one you still many more!!

There is an old saying “If you aim at nothing then you are sure to hit it!” If you don’t try for changing the culture of your church then you are sure to end up with the same culture as you arrive at 2019. There are some simple mindsets and actions that you can take NOW that will give your church a chance to move towards valuing consensus based discernment. So here are some suggested resolutions. I am sure you can add some more of your own.

Consensus 101 – bell the cat

Name the problems you see in meetings. Once named it is easier to see them every time.

  • When you see people shut out of contributing – insist that they are heard
  • If people get hurt by your meeting processes care for them and challenge the meeting planners to do better
  • When decisions are resisted or get revisited time and again ask why it happens
  • When there is confusion during debates ask what can be done to help people understand the issues and the motion  (hint – questions for clarification)
  • When people don’t behave like Christians should behave tell them that it isn’t good enough and our discipleship should also be shown in meetings

Talk to people about consensus discernment

You know stuff that a lot of people in your church have never heard about. Consensus based discernment is the future but it is not the present for many congregations.

People often put up with things because they don’t know that there are alternatives. Encourage people – especially the hurt, marginalised, spiritual, hopeful, despondent people – and yes leaders who long for a better way. Share the resources that you have. Respond to their questions. Challenge them to hope and imagination.

Continue to learn about consensus discernment

Read the posts from this site. If you haven’t done it yet buy our  book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. Read other books from secular  and religious authors that talk about consensus building and decision-making. Some examples are: Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America and Ruth Haley Barton Pursuing God’s Will Together.

Buy the Making Church Decisions course. Five modules with four or five lessons in each module that are full of insights and practical usable tips plus many resources that are not in the book. The course will be available late February. Sign up for the posts or follow on FaceBook to be sure that you hear about it and get a chance to grab the heavily discounted launch special!

Organise seminars and workshops in your local church or district. Julia and I are very keen to meet you in person and to have the chance to explore in depth the ideas and resources that we have. What better way to get access to one or both of us to coach and mentor you around the specific situations that you face!

Start or join on line discussions. We would love more comments on our FaceBook posts (@makingchurchdecisions.com) or on these posts. We want to encourage a community of learning. Lead the discussion or join in when you can.

Build group cohesion and find common goals

People gathered together in groups can have a wide range of aims when they come together. Unless these aims are aligned in some way then building consensus is not possible. It is no accident that the effective examples of consensus based discernment or decision-making are seen in groups that have a shared goal.

Goals need to be aligned at a very high level – the detail is not as important as the highest shared value(s). Examples of high-level goals include making a commercial profit, maintaining peace and stability in a community, seeking to do the will of God, community action groups seeking change in their community. If the focus is too much on lower level objectives then the divergence between participants magnifies.

Identify and agree about the high level goals.  People will support and strive to achieve these. This is an essential prerequisite foundation for building consensus. These goals or objectives may be served by a wide variety of strategies. The individual ideas about the way to achieve the goal become less important than the end point. As a result people can change from their initial ideas, or can accommodate more than one approach. If people see alternatives as a better way to support the main / common goal then they will accept them.

Encourage and build diversity in your meetings

When a group is very homogeneous in character, and attitudes among group members are too similar, it works against consensus. In such cases it is very difficult to generate new ideas that lead to the best decisions.

The best way to reduce the risk of this “group think” is to get a whole lot of different people in the room. Businesses recognise the importance of cultural, gender, age and experience diversity on their Boards. Diverse Boards generate more ideas and make better decisions. The same goes for the church.

So start thinking about your local church council or board and whether it is diverse enough. If it isn’t diverse start encouraging a range of different people to become members.

Conclusion

The start of a new year is a great time to think about doing things differently! Here are 5 things that you can do now that will help you to develop an openness and culture where consensus based discernment can take root and flourish. Hopefully you can add some more.

We would love to hear from you about the goals you have set for yourself this year and how they go. You can use the comments option on this post or start a conversation on FaceBook @makingchurchdecision.com

Uniting The Church – Is it Possible?

Partisanship in the church is not an obstacle to uniting the church. Closed mindedness to the other person and enmity is what is fatal if we are interested in uniting the church.

United Methodist Church (USA) – A Case Study

For many years the United Methodist Church (USA), hereafter the UMC, has been tearing itself apart over a range of issues. The most polarising issue at the moment is the one that it shares with many other churches – the place of LGBTIQ people in the life of the church. In some churches the issue is about whether LGBTIQ people can be members, or even Christians. For other churches it is about ordination or whether the church should conduct marriages or blessings of their love for one another.

In 2016 the UMC General Conference in Portland had the opportunity to talk together about this issue in a new, respectful and collaborative way. The meeting refused to use a new process. There were many reasons for this decision. However a major reason the new rule was not used was because people preferred to fight rather than co-operate. People wanted a fight so that they could defeat their opponents and vanquish them.  They cared less about each other than getting the votes. “To the victor the spoils” was the driving agenda of too many at that meeting.

Later in the meeting the General Conference established a Special Commission on the Way Forward. The aim of the Commission is to bring a plan to a special “called Conference” about how the church can overcome its incessant conflict, splits and the destructive effects on its mission. Tragically the Commission seems to have used the contemporary political approach of bringing the opposing parties together to cut a deal. Inevitably this approach will not succeed in uniting the church. Rather it will entrench the differences as side each jockeys for its agenda to succeed.

Uniting the church is not going to happen through encouraging partisanship and political game playing.  However, it is still not too late for the UMC to deploy an alternative method of respect and collaboration.

Uniting the church – a cynics view

There are many in the UMC, and other churches, who feel that the divide is too great and the enmity too strong to make respect and collaboration possible.

The argument runs

  • trust has been broken
  • with all the power in the opposing camps there is no middle ground
  • leaders get positions of power because they are hyper-partisan
  • bias in communications is so strong there is no room for a middle voice
  • with opposing world views clashing, it’s impossible to respect the other
  • every discussion is framed as a binary “yes” / “no” choice
  • don’t be so naive to think we can respect each other – you’ll get used

This cynicism is rife in many churches. So, in the face of divisions the idea of uniting Christians again seems like searching for the prospector’s lost reef of gold.

Let’s get realistic!

In the American context the churches face a particular challenge. Their political leaders have become more and more disrespectful of each other. The once encouraging ability to work “across the aisle” seems to have disappeared. Hyperbole, denigration and demonising of those with different views is standard discourse in politics and the media. Christians operating in this environment are at great risk of being infected with this poison. That’s a real problem and it needs to be taken seriously.

Fighting each other in the church is destructive of the church’s witness. People can see a political fight anywhere at any time. When they see Christians doing it then they will not hang around. When Christians tell me that it’s important to destroy their opponents so that the true Christian message can be preached I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. People are desperate to see love, experience community, and to receive respect. People are desperate to encounter in their experience of others the love, community and respect that God has shown humanity in Jesus Christ. The mission of God through the church is undermined when Christians prefer fighting to loving one another.

To fight each other in order to gain the spoils of victory will result in a pyrrhic victory. The cost of a victory delivered through lies, power plays and political deals costs the victor so much that it is really a loss. So often we forget that the way we reach a decision can be as important as the decision itself.

Finding a way past hyper-partisanship is the only hope for the church.  Uniting and peace are possible for the church. The alternative of division and discord is depressing and defeatist.

Being realistic includes:

  • resisting the power of local culture as it seeks to shape the character of Christian communities
  • grieving over the way that Christians fighting pushes people away from the Christian faith
  • recognising that the way we win can cause more harm than good
  • continuing on the hyper-partisan route is hopeless
  • Christians are a people of hope who have the promises of God about what our future can look like
  • we have the Holy Spirit with us so that we do not lose the way

What are the options

1.   Treat each other as sisters and brothers

See each other first as sisters and brothers in Christ. Avoid the temptation to demonise each other. Yes that is a real act of will. Actually it is an act of faith too! Do you have faith that God has made us family? If so what are you going to do about that when you disagree with someone?

2.   Talk to each other about your faith

In the last 20 years one of the great movements of the Holy Spirit in uniting Christians has been the Global Christian Forum. Pentecostal, Evangelical and Catholic Christians were not members of established national and international ecumenical bodies. In the case of Pentecostals and Evangelical Christians it was because they saw ecumenical Christians as theologically liberal and politically “progressive”.

Catholics and the other groups have had significant levels of enmity. Catholics considered that these churches were proselytising their members. Many Evangelicals and Pentecostals did not regard Catholics as Christians. Their leaders attacked each other and distrusted them.

In the face of these harsh realities uniting these groups seemed impossible. The Global Christian Forum was established to address these issues. It’s methodology is very simple – meet each other as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ. The structure of their fellowship is for people to share the stories of their faith – how they came to it, what nurtures it, what they hope for because of their faith.

3.   Learn from groups that are uniting their communities

I have just started reading the latest book by Mark Gerzon The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. Mark is a mediator and an expert on political bridge building.

In the book he takes a realistic view of the obstacles to co-operation that exist in the American political context. He tells exciting stories about grass roots action for change. Mark Gerzon has biases. He prefers one candidate over another. One set of policies are viewed as better than others. However he has chosen not to be hyper-partisan in support for them. One key insight that makes this possible for him is that he has owned that he both liberal and conservative. Recognising that we are not monochrome, but are diverse in ourself, makes it possible to be comfortable with difference in others. The self talk we do as we explore our internal differences can be applied to the dialogue we have with others.

His four core strategies for uniting American citizens again across the partisan divide are:

  • reinventing citizenship
  • leading from across the borders that divide
  • championing the whole truth
  • serving the people

I highly commend The Reunited States of America: how we can bridge the partisan divide. You can access a copy here. If you purchase anything through this link within 24 hours we receive a small commission. This helps us to cover the costs of this website.

4.   Apply consensus building resources in your church

Don’t just think about the problems – work on the solutions in your context. There are many simple things that you can do to change the culture and practices of your church. Use the tools that have been proven to be effective in uniting Christians.

This website is devoted to making resources available to people who want to do consensus building in their church. If you are newlease browse and find more support. For a comprehensive resource we recommend our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together. You can purchase a copy  from Cokebury here or from Amazon.

Conclusion

There are many conflicts in the church. Many seem intractable. However relationships can be turned around – uniting divided people is possible. The good news is that God is committed to the goal of uniting us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us, faith to live out of, and many resources from inside and outside the church to resource us. Don’t give up!

1000 people tried consensus – how did it go?

WCRC General Council Logo 2017

The World Communion of Reformed Churches took a huge risk by using consensus as their way of discernment and decision-making. Around a 1,000 people met as the General Council in Leipzig June / July 2017 and consensus was new to the vast majority. How did it go?

What the Participants said

Martin Engles

Amy Eckert wrote a comprehensive article on the process, its goals and values. In it she interviewed a number of participants. Here are some of their observations.

Within the small groups the real work of discernment takes place. “Discernment truly is more about listening than speaking,” said Gradye Parsons. “It is important to listen to what others are saying. It is important to listen to what God is saying. And it’s important to consider your own thoughts with regard to the issue and in light of what you have heard.”

Rev. Lucy Wambui Waweru, minister of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa serving the Nyeri Church in central Kenya, values very much the input that ordinary delegates have on the process within the small groups.

“Discernment Groups include voices from around the world,” she said. “The groups also have a mix of older, more seasoned ecumenists as well as younger delegates. And every voice is heard.”

What is different?

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

Rev. Annedore Held Venhaus, minister in the Evangelical La Plata Church in Tres Arroyos, Argentina, really likes the notion of the colored cards. “I like how the cards express a feeling, not a decision,” she said. “I feel warm to this idea, I feel cool to it. I found that very interesting.”

Waweru agreed. She also appreciated that giving consensus did not mean that a delegate was 100% supportive or opposed to a proposal. Nor did it mean that the delegate envisioned a clear path toward adoption of the new proposal.

“Just because I raise my orange card doesn’t mean I know that my home church will accept the proposal,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I know how my home church will implement it. My orange card only means that I believe God is calling us to journey in this direction. It’s all about a willingness to begin a process.”

If you were at the General Council of WCRC we would love to hear your comments. Also any questions are very welcome.

You can read the whole article on the WCRC website.

Six things that work against consensus

There are a number of things that work against consensus being achieved. They need to be recognised and addressed.

Group Think

When being a member of a group creates pressure on members to narrow down the range of opinions Groupthink occurs. When a group is very homogeneous in character, and attitudes among group members are too similar, it works against consensus. In such cases it is very difficult to generate new ideas that lead to the best decisions. This risk is not limited to groups that seek to build consensus for their decisions. However when coming to consensus is highly prized in a group, there can be pressure to conform. Groupthink can be minimized by allowing individuals to first independently collect information before presenting their recommended course of action.

When there is no group

A collection of individuals who have no shared purpose or common interests cannot make a group decision. There must be something that binds  people together and there must also be a shared willingness to work on the project together.

A major challenge facing churches that want to move to consensus building in decision-making is a high level of conflict amongst their members. The level of brokenness in relationships, limited trust and major positional differences are significant challenges and work against consensus.

Nevertheless every effort should be made to find the common ground of some shared values or higher level shared goals.  Serious disagreements should not be used as an excuse to avoid trying to build consensus.

No agreed purpose for the meeting

If people think that a meeting is only a rubber stamp for the leadership’s preconceived ideas then you can’t use consensus processes. When a meeting is seen as a source ideas that will be decided upon later then genuine consensus will not be sought. In The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together  we make the point that it works against consensus if participants in a meeting don’t agree about its purpose.

In emergencies

As the old saying goes “there are no democrats in a foxhole.” Different kinds of leadership are required for different purposes. A crisis needs swift action and usually a decision about which issue is most important to address at that time. Authority based leadership is most suitable in this context.

When there is no decision to take

Sometimes this occurs when a decision is particularly trivial. You don’t need a sophisticated process to decide the color of the table cloths in the church hall.

On other occasions it will be because not everyone has to agree on a given course of action. A church meeting might gather to consider mission strategies at which many ideas are shared. As interested people gather around the ideas that they support, they don’t need everyone to agree to do their thing before it can happen.

It isn’t the right time

Sometimes a group will not have all the information that it needs so it cannot reach a good decision. In such situations a pause should be taken. This allows for more data or resources to be gathered to inform the next stage of the conversation.

On other occasions people may have a clear idea on what should be done, but  will know that now is not the time. Many a good idea fails because it is planted out of season. Being willing to consider “when” is as important as the “what”.

Conclusion

Clearly there are obstacles to coming to consensus – where that means a unanimous decision. For other examples see here. Please share a comment  about when consensus building has proved to be difficult and what you did about it.

Even if it is unlikely that you will reach a unanimous view on a given subject – do not stop using consensus building techniques. Continue to show respect for one another. Listen carefully to all the voices. Seek common ground and be prepared to change your mind. Even if you don’t get to full agreement there will be many areas where consensus can be built. By identifying the areas of agreement it is possible to clearly identify continuing disagreements and to generate strategies for addressing them.