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.

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.

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

Abuse of power in the church – are we desensitised?

How come so many communities can live with abuse and not be troubled by it? There is a lot in the media lately about sexual harassment and abuse in society. In particular leading figures in the US media, politics, entertainment, business and more widely are being called out. That’s a great thing and it owes a lot to the #metoo campaign that encouraged women to speak out and name their abuse.

Sadly we know that there has been a lot of this kind of harassment and abuse in the church over the years. It continues in many churches, but thankfully in many we are becoming more sensitive to it.

Abuse of power in the church

There is another kind of abuse that is more widespread in the church. It is the abuse that leaves many people feeling belittled, hurt, estranged, disempowered and emotionally abused. Time and again in the church women, young people, persons of the non dominant culture or language, LGBTIQ members, those of different theological traditions, etc are attacked and denied a place. So they are left hurt and feeling worthless because of the way that church meetings are run.

How is it possible that church leaders can behave in ways that are so destructive of people and relationships in the church? Don’t they know what  the Christian way of behaving looks like?! It is like we church leaders have become insensitive to the abuse we do. We are no better than the men accused of sexually harassing someone who say “I don’t remember it that way?”

This week I read a great article by Emma Gray at The Huffington Post, who was exploring why women and men so often have different memories of events. Could it be, as Gray says in her article “When men ‘misremember’ violating women”, that people don’t notice the unacceptable nature of their behaviour because it is normal behaviour in their context? As she says people don’t notice abusive behaviour because ” … if this sort of behavior feels “normal,” why would it stand out?”

Abuse- how did we get desensitised?

How can the woman experience something as sexual abuse and the man as flirting, or shared experiences, or a bit of a joke. How can women, minorities, etc experience an event as an abuse of power in the church and others (often men) have no idea what the problem is?

In her article “When men ‘misremember’ violating women” Ms Gray points out that women and men draw the lines about what is acceptable in a different place. Men draw it in a place that gives them far more power and capacity to harm women. This happens because there is a culture that says that men are “entitled”. This sense of entitlement is so deep, and the culture so supportive of the practices that sustain it, that men cease to recognise sexual abuse when it happens.

Let’s think about that in relation to abuse of power in the church. Is it possible that we see habitual and ingrained abuse of power because the people of power draw the lines on acceptable behaviour in a different place to the victims of power? Does it suit the strong to grant themselves permission to behave badly, compared to what the weaker sections of the church community would describe acceptable behaviour?  Yes!

A culture of entitlement

Do the traditional leaders in the church consider themselves entitled to get their way? Do they privilege their voice over the voices of others? Yes!

In most churches we have  a culture of entitlement that gives permission for the established leadership to get its way. So the rules of our church meetings are written to support the interests of the leadership. Similarly, the practices that are seen as acceptable are the ones that work for the privileged group.

Who is the traditional leadership group that is given special place in your church? Who do the rules favour, so that when abuse happens the abusers do not even realise that they are doing it? Some possibilities include:

  • clergy
  • senior office holders – Bishops, General Secretaries, etc
  • people who are well educated in theology and other areas
  • men
  • higher level caste members and tribal chiefs
  • a dominant theological school of thought (it doesn’t matter which one)
  • others that you can add from your context

Who gets hurt by the way these people behave in a meeting?

  • lay people
  • the less well educated
  • women and young people
  • persons from less respected sectors of society – e.g. caste, indigenous people, certain socio economic backgrounds, etc
  • minorities – e.g. LGBTIQ persons, people with disabilities, migrants, etc

Say what! You didn’t realise that your words and actions would hurt me!

We have all been in the situation where someone has expressed surprise that their behaviour in a church meeting was experienced as abusive. I have been shocked when I have been told that the way that I behaved was hurtful to others. I have seen people weep and be very, very angry at the way they have been put down, or deceived, or stopped from having a say in a meeting.

It is no excuse, but it is possible that a majority of the abusers do not realise that they are abusing people. Obviously some people do know what they are doing! But there are people of good will and faith in the dominant group who actually don’t see that what they are doing is wrong. The culture is so strong, and the practices so ingrained, that they are blind. Maybe this is why more than once Jesus said “let those who have eyes see, and those with ears hear.”

How will change be possible?

How will they see and hear? In the US consciousness is rising and change may be possible because sexual abusers are being named and shamed. This is happening because the victims of abuse stand up and name their experience. It is deeply unfair that the survivors of abuse have to confront their abusers. Yet this is often seen to the the most likely way to get the issue before the community.

Many men in the US are now realising that by their silence they have been complicit in supporting the behaviour of abusers. Increasingly men are acknowledging their responsibility to denounce bad behaviour when they see it. They now know that they must support women who resist harassment and abuse. Remaining silent – because “I am not doing it” – is no longer an option when observing abuse.

We have to stop accepting abuse of power in the church and the harm that it does. My encouragement is that we all name it when we see it. Raise points of order or personal explanations in meetings when you see abusive behaviour happen. Call out bad behaviour and offer alternative ways of being in community.

Yes, the people who experience the abuse are going to be the best placed to see and name it. It’s hard, but the recent US experience can give us hope that it can work. Other people of goodwill have to protect and support those who identify themselves as victims of abuse. Persons from the privileged group need to talk to the others and understand their experience so that they can be advocates for justice and peace in their church.

If you have any stories that you want to share then please use the comments section provided below.