What’s wrong with the way we make decisions?

Recall some recent decision points

Think back to your last big church meeting decision. It may have been about building a new sanctuary, firing a youth worker or starting a second worship service. As you think back on the debates and discussions about that issue, which image below best describes your experience?

(a) A ‘shootout at the OK Corral because some members want to win at all costs; or
(b) A positive experience of Christians conferencing together to discern the will of God?

(a) A meeting where the lid is kept tightly tied down on creative options that have not been thought of first by a vocal leader; or
(b) A space where all feelings, hopes and ideas are encouraged to come forward?

(a) A discussion dominated by a few articulate, domineering people; or
(b) A meeting where all voices are empowered, listened to and respected?

What happened at the time?

Perhaps a reasonable solution was offered to resolve a matter. Yet someone blocked its consideration with a passionate battle cry of “not in my church!” Then the meeting ground to a halt.

A crucial issue is addressed. However its discovered that the final decision was made in the parking lot after the official meeting ended.

Situations like these, which undermine true community, highlight unhealthy patterns in religious organisations.  Have you experienced that it’s not what we decide but how that makes the difference?

Churches are experiencing growing incivility as members engage with each other around matters about which they have very strong feelings. So we see people shout at each other, keep information secret, overgeneralize, and argue for their ‘side.’ Frequently it seems that there is little or no concern for the perspectives or feelings of others. Therefore churches lose valuable time and resources because of pervasive conflict. Is this your experience?

What is happening to us?

Sadly, people have become accustomed to this kind of behavior. So they leave it unchallenged even while knowing, deep down, that it isn’t right. They know that a “winner take all” mindset and the subversive tactics that make it possible are wrong. Yet they tolerate it by their silence. It’s time for the church to stand up and challenge this prevailing culture.

Trust in society, and in the church, is in short supply. So is discernment. The polarized atmosphere of many church meetings has led to a breakdown of trust and to people disengaging from the life and mission of the church. Therefore younger generations shy away from leadership. Older members bear emotional scars.

Let’s be clear. The prevailing meeting rules that are used in many churches and community groups actually foster disharmony and encourage negative outcomes. What is this adversarial style that is causing so much pain and harm? It is known as “Parliamentary Procedures” or simply: “Robert’s Rules of Order.” It was actually intended to help people complete an agenda in an orderly fashion. How’s it working for you?

How Robert’s Rules of Order work

In a parliamentary process of decision-making, primacy is given to succinct reason and logical argument, which validates a conclusion. Many times we hear it said with disdain in church meetings “Oh, I wish he would just get to the point!” It is as though emotion, story, reason, and experience have nothing to offer in the search for wisdom and meaning. How far this is from the truth! In fact, emotion, story, experience, and reason have moved to the very center of how people find and understand true insight.

Not only does Robert’s Rules create “winners” and “losers,” it also ignores spiritual ways of developing insight and making decisions as disciples of Jesus Christ. This process cares little about supporting the values for which the church says that it stands. For example being humble, gentle, and patient or bearing with each other in love.

The alternative

Fortunately, there is an alternative way of reaching a decision that is theologically, socially, culturally, and relationally more appropriate today. It has its roots in Scripture. Also it is engaging and easily understood.

Clues to this alternative approach come from multicultural communities. They make decisions through processes that are very different to a parliamentary process. Careful conversations take place before action is decided. Options are wisely considered.

Also the increased participation of women and young adults in the leadership of the church has led to a significant number of people wanting a more collaborative rather than combative or adversarial way of making decisions. They recognize that a divided community eventually falls.

The case for using a fresh approach for making decisions is getting urgent because:

  • 95 percent of Americans agree with the statement: “People on opposite sides of an issue demonize each other so severely that finding common ground seems impossible.”
  • 75 percent of Americans agree with the proposition that we should give moderate voices more emphasis and “stop letting the people on the extreme ends of the issues dominate the discussion on important issues.” (Research released at the Q Conference)

A consensus-building approach can assist a congregation or organization to discern the will of God for its life. It does so in ways that are inclusive and consistent with Christian values by:

  • creating a respectful environment where people are able to name what is important for them
  • assisting everyone to have a full understanding of the issues and the implications of their decisions
  • collaborating to generate better options
  • helping participants come to a place where they can accept the views of the majority even if they are not their first choice
  • allowing people to know that they have been heard and taken seriously.

In short, this new process provides a credible Christian witness in the world even when considering complex issues.

The way forward

We believe that church leaders want a new way of making decisions. A way that honors diversity, respects all participants, is collaborative, builds a sense of real community, and uses time wisely. However, what is lacking is a step-by-step guide and training that assists leaders to articulate their experience and vision.

Leaders need to know:

  • how to prepare for an alternative way of decision making
  • the meeting procedures and tools to can use to build consensus
  • how to make decisions they can implement

We step into that void with a process that has three distinct phases:

  1. Information Phase
    2. Deliberation/Consideration Phase
    3. Decision Phase.

Through various methods, including small groups, these phases create spaces where listening, creativity, respect, vulnerability, and collaboration are fostered and expressed. You can read more in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Robert’s Rules tend to be more condensed and focused on the decision phase. It gets confusing when used to generate fresh ideas.

Christians deserve a new way of making decisions in their congregation and throughout the church’s decision-making systems. They yearn for a way that honors diversity, respects all participants, is collaborative and strengthens community. Many churches around the world have changed their business procedures away from the parliamentary style because of the damage that it was doing to their life. They have developed processes that create a healthy culture that is consistent with Christian values.

Can we do anything less? Please comment on this post with stories, good and bad, from your church experience about how important decisions get made. Do you follow parliamentary rules?  Or have you switched to a different process when considering significant strategy, changes or opportunities?

Alternatives to Voting

Is there another way to make a decision besides voting all the time?

Yes!  there are other ways to make a decision besides voting. Voting tends to create winners and losers. Sometimes people get their feelings hurt when their idea is not accepted by others. Try some of these other methods the next time you have an important matter to decide:

Alternative Ways to Come to a Conclusion

  1. Compromise: This method works best when there are 2 clear choices neither of which thrills everyone. In this approach, each party gives a little to the other to make the issue easier to work through together. Compromise works best when people need a relatively quick resolution, the stakes are not very high, and people are willing to trade off some of their interests for the sake of the group. Voting in this context has the potential to create an enduring division.
  2. Thinking it through as a group: This approach works well when people are willing to give the time to discuss a matter thoroughly in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution. It takes a lot of listening and creativity to find an answer where most people feel comfortable.
  3. Colored Cards:  Try this approach the next time there is an important matter before your group.  Distribute 2 colored cards to each individual: orange for warm, and blue for cool.  Allow time for individuals and groups to give a short presentation on their resolution to the issue, and for the group to ask questions to be sure they understand the proposal.  After each presentation ask the group to raise a colored card to indicate if they are warm or cool to the idea that has been suggested. This is not “yes” or “no”. Rather it is providing an opportunity to be more nuanced. Help people to share what is positive about the proposal from their point of view or where they see a need to change it to make it more acceptable to them. Keep doing this approach until the idea with the highest level of support is identified.matter is decided. Encourage people to have fun with the process and focus on the idea and not the individual making the point. Be very careful not to turn the colored cards into voting cards!
  4. Standing Aside:  This approach works well when the group does not come to a clear consensus yet has a developed view on a clear way forward. Ask people if they are willing to step aside for the good of the group when it becomes clear that one answer is gaining support.
  5. One Person Decides: Try this approach the next time you are making a decision and the group seems stuck and unable to make a decision. Identify a person that the group trusts and respects; or a person with expertise on the topic and agree to let them make the decision. This is like when an arbitrator is used in settling, say, commercial, disputes. This method works well when the issue before the body is not really important, or when people accept that they do not have the expertise to make the decision themselves. However, be sure to allow plenty of time for group discussion and questions first.
  6. Show of Support: Ok, this method is really a vote, but because it is done at the same time the group makes a decision together. This approach works well when you are trying to prioritise 2-3 ideas from a list. Ask the group to brainstorm ideas to resolve a challenge. List the ideas by title on a sheet of newsprint. When all the ideas are listed and explained give everyone 5 colored dots. Invite the group to come to the idea sheet and spend their dots any way they choose. They may place 5 dots on one idea or spread them out over several ideas they like. Count the dots and circle the number of support for each title. The ones with the most support get done.
  7. Spontaneous Agreement: This approach works well after a full discussion of a choice is accomplished and the matter before the group has full support. To be sure, these times are rare but they do happen. It is most helpful when there is a feeling that the entire group backs an answer. Ask: “Is there anyone against our following this solution to our problem?” Invite people to share their perspective, then repeat the question to gauge if there is full support.

Don’t Give Up!

There are alternative ways to make a decision that do not have to divide your group. Always have a full discussion of the merits of an idea before making a decision. Encourage your leaders to practice good listening. Answer all questions carefully when raised. Finally, let people know when decisions are not final. They can always evaluate a situation later and fine-tune their options until they feel satisfied with the results.

Community based decision-making process – 4th step: implementation

Implementation is step 4 in a series of steps required for effective community based decision-making. This is the most important step because without implementation you don’t have a decision that is worth anything. The first step 1 is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision. The final step 4 is to implementation of the decision.

“The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 96 and 187. You can get your copy at Cokesbury or Amazon.

What now? Implementation!

Decisions deserves action or follow through. This final step is so important for a community-based process of making decisions. You have taken the time to prepare people, invite them to participate, discern God’s will through deliberation, and…?  Don’t forget the final step: Implementation! This is why decisions matter – things get done.

Implementation of the decision made by your faith group involves easy but often overlooked things. All are important. All are essential. Confusion and lack of synergy shows up in groups that do this step poorly. Groups that do this step well have discovered that their membership own the decision, and just as importantly, own the process. It becomes natural to them. They discover a strength in accomplishing God’s best hopes.

So, what’s involved in this step? Here is a  list of actions for you to consider once a decision has been made.

Meet with people who are affected by a decision

Not every decision needs a special meeting to relay the results. However there are times when something is significant and needs extra effort.

If a decision is complex, contentious or affects a lot of people then it is pastoral to meet people face to face. Listen to the concerns they have. Answer their questions. Explain again the process that was undertaken, the decision and the implications. Care for one another.

Send a letter

People were invited into the process in the first step. They have been partners with you in the process of discernment. So inform members that a decision has been made on the specific matter about which they have been in prayer. If appropriate convene a meeting rather than try to cover everything in a letter.

Of course websites, newsletters, Facebook groups and other communication tools can also be used to share information. However don’t hide behind a computer screen or a piece of paper.

Other people will tell the story if you don’t. Therefore ensure that people get the right information. Do not let people rely on gossip to know what is happening. If your decision impacts a specific ministry or previous arrangement with groups, be sure to let them know in writing as well.

Request continued prayer and support

Making a decision is only half (maybe less) of the story. Implementation of the decision can take weeks, months or years. Request prayer and other appropriate support for those with responsibility for the implementation of the decision.

Make these requests for support very specific. Share the projected timeline, key people involved, and name those who will be positively or negatively affected by the decision.

Think about what specific things can people do to support the decision throughout the timeline. Then offer concrete tasks for action.

Thank people

Discernment is a team effort. Remember, encourage and thank people for participating in the process. Think of specific people who have carried a heavy load in the decision-making process or will have to in the implementation phase. What special blessing can you offer them?

Have clear lines of accountability

The meeting decided who would do what tasks and by what date. The minutes provide a clear record of the decision. The implementation of the decision must be monitored.

Whether it is a small or large decision the decision-making body should get progress reports. There is a saying that people don’t do what is expected, they do what is inspected.

Do not be naïve. A person will delay and divert attention from a project if s/he doesn’t want something to happen. The community has discerned Christ’s will for them and therefore it is the responsibility of everyone to accept that decision. People are held accountable through regular progress reports.

More positively accountability ensures that the implementation of the decision is happening. When people sense that they are being faithful to what God has called them to do, this can be an energising and encouraging time.

Assess the process

Leaders should be clear about what went well in the process and what can be improved next time. Remember, it takes several attempts at a new way of doing things before people feel comfortable. Stay the course.

Strategies for review include setting time aside at a regular meeting to reflect on the process, or hold a special purpose meeting or design a survey.

Remember when you do your review to include all four steps and the people who were involved. For example

  • Were there any steps in the preparations that were missed or could have been done better?
  • Did the members of the congregation feel invited to participate and know how that was possible?
  • How well did we do in the four phases of the discernment process – community building, information sharing, deliberations and determination? What can we do better next time?
  • How was our communication? Did the implementation go to plan?

Celebrate

In an appropriate way acknowledge that you have done well.

Conclusion

As you can see there are many aspects to implementing a decision. More than just the decision matters in a community based process. The community matters. People affected by a decision matter. When your decision-making process has an eye beyond just the decision it is easier to recognise the many steps involved in implementation.

Decisions that are made actually get put into action when you do this step well. Things change. Your faith community becomes stronger.

Let us know your experience in making decisions. We would welcome your feedback to this series. Post a response. We’d love to hear from you!

Community based decision-making process – 3rd step: deliberation and decision

In any decision-making process deliberation and decision is where most people want to rush. This is the part of the process that most people think about when they talk about making decisions. It is the very heart of a decision-making process.

This is the 3rd post in a series of four posts that walk through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. Step 3 is deliberation and decision. Step 1 is preparation, step 2 is invitation and step 4 is implement the decision.

The material below is expanded upon in the book: “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” in pages 93 – 95 and 186. You can get your copy at Cokesbury or Amazon.

Before the deliberations begin

We are absolutely convinced that when you complete the first 2 steps properly (Preparation and Invitation), then this step is a real delight.

First a reminder. Because this process is community-based, gathering the community for this work is crucial. Therefore people should know the issue(s) in advance and receive all relevant materials before the meeting. They should come to the meeting with a sense of prayer and wonder at what God is about to do through them. Supported this step with deep prayer and reflection. Sadly, some people come to meetings loaded for bear. That is, they take sides in advance and are convinced that they need to argue their point. Winning is their motivation. However, nothing is further from the truth of what community based discernment is about!

Here is a basic outline of an agenda for the deliberation and decision-making part of a discernment process.

Gather the Community

Participants are reminded, affirmed and built up as a community in this part of the meeting. When done well people will:

  • be welcomed
  • share a time of worship or devotion
  • build community
  • set boundaries or guidelines to complete the work ahead
  • review and agree to the agenda with appropriate break times
  • receive an overview of the consensus process.

Information Phase

Most leaders tend to ignore or limit this part of the meeting. Many questions and confusion easily arise when this happens. The issue or topic to be discussed is presented and relevant supporting material distributed.

Often this material takes the form of a petition or proposal to considered. Time must be given to answering questions on the topic so everyone is clear what they are being asked to do, understand the matter before them and the implications of their decision.

An often overlooked important piece of information is what is important to the decision makers as they consider the issue. People decide things on what they think is important. If other people don’t know what matters to others then they will not know where each other are coming from. Worse still, important needs and concerns will not surface. This means that all the issues will not be addressed and the full range of possible outcomes will be cut off.

Deliberation Phase

It is very important that you provide enough time for this phase. This is where creative options surface and the shape of the decision starts to come into focus.

In Robert’s Rules of Order, this is often a time of making amendments and substitution which can be confusing. In a community-based consensus process, it is a time for respectful conversation and consultation with one another to share experiences, hopes, values, feelings, and theology on the proposal. By doing this you begin to see what is acceptable in the proposal and whether there are other ways to achieve goals.

There are many ways to help these sorts of discussions and to capture the developing consensus. One valuable technique to foster these conversations is to form smaller groups of 6-8 people to seek direction.

Determination / Decision Phase

This is the place in the meeting where the decision is made. Perhaps the decision is that it is not time to finalise the issue. So the matter will be referred to a group for further work. That group will then bring back the next phase of the discernment in a new proposal.

Often, a group decides they have had enough conversation and are ready to share alternate ideas gleaned from conversation and prayer in the Deliberation Phase.  If you have completed the previous phases with integrity, there may be a clear cut sense of direction. This is the point where leaders ask the group if they are ready to make a decision. A revised petition or proposal may be presented to the entire group from feedback in small group sessions, or through other strategies.  Remember the point is to draw from the wisdom of the community.

Ultimately it is time to make the decision. This can be done with a show of hands, ballots, or other means. Once the decision is made it should be documented so anyone not present at the meeting understands what has happened and what the next steps will be.

Conclusion

Close the meeting by thanking people for their participation and hard work. Where appropriate end the meeting with an acknowledgement of what the group has worked on and been through. This may be a time for a prayer or song.

I am deeply troubled when a group says that this work takes too much time. They prefer a simple yes or no vote. The answer is simple: take just enough time to discern the will of God on a matter with your brothers and sisters. Then people have ownership of the decision. You will know that you have spent time wisely when you hear people say that they fully understand the decision and are prepared to support it.

If you do not take adequate time for this step then you will waste time later revisiting the matter, or suffering from people’s confusion or lack of support. Groups have split over less!

What a wonderful feeling it is when a faith community knows that they have discerned the will of God on the matter and are prepared to embrace it together!

Post your response to this article so that we may hear your experience and insights about making decisions well.

 

 

 

Community based decision-making process – 2nd step: invitation

 

Who would throw a party and not send an invitation to guests? Sounds silly, right? Would you believe that many church leaders plan for an important decision and fail to get the right people to the table? Therefore in an effective decision-making process invitation is essential. So give careful thought to who should be present. It takes effort to think this through. However it is well worth it.

This post is part of a series of four that walk 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.

“The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 92, 93 and 185. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.

Decide who should be present

I know – it sounds obvious, but this step is often overlooked. Who should be on your invitation list? Some meetings have a limited group of people involved in the decision-making. Some decision-making bodies like congregations can be quite large. When holding important meetings make sure to hold them when as many people as possible can participate. The first group of people who need to be present are the people who need to make the decision – plan for maximum involvement.

Decision-makers need good information and good processes. Therefore the second group of people you need at a meeting are resource people. They may be subject experts who offer technical information or other data.

Some discussions are complex and need processes that can maximize participation, exploration of issues, and the drawing out of opinions. Not every Church Board or congregation has experts in meeting processes. So consider – do we need some help in developing the processes for our discussions?

Decision-makers are not the only persons affected by a decision. So it is important to have people who are affected by a decision, present at some stage in the decision-making process. Decisions-makers need to understand the impact of a decision. This is important information for decision-makers. Therefore think about who can help a group understand the impact that their decision will have. Then add them to the invitation list.

When possible, make a list of people who need to participate. This group will include those with authority to decide, people who can assist the knowledge base and processes of the group, and others who help to make the impact of the decision clear to the decision-makers.

Develop a clear communication plan – invitation

Participants need to know what is happening. Encourage people to understand why it is important that they attend. Also they need to know where the meeting will be held and other important details.

A note in the bulletin or minutes is not enough to get the word out. Try some of these ideas: send an open letter to the congregation or organization, make numerous announcements, present involvement as an invitation to something important, and introduce the process leaders to your group and have them explain what will happen.

Practice the Means of Grace

Invite people to be in a spirit of prayer for the meeting. Encourage them to pray and reflect on scripture during this time. Every member of the community of faith is a partner in the process. So respect them and affirm them by providing them with the opportunity to support the process through prayer and other acts of faithfulness.

Conclusion

When you have the right people at the table, the process of making decisions goes better. Take the time to invite people in as many ways as possible. Encourage their participation by providing good information, specific invitations and concrete recommendations for how they can be involved.

Do the ideas in this article match things that you have done? How did that work out?  Let us know your thoughts, experience and questions.