The way we make decisions is broken

What is wrong with this picture?

Last year I was at a major international church meeting that had to make some big decisions. There was a lot of conflict and high emotion. Many people kept asking questions. I thought they had already been answered. So it was not possible to make decisions and so the issue ground to a halt because of confusion. Later I spoke to a Minister of that church who has incredibly high standing across the denomination. I made a comment about how so many people kept asking questions throughout the debate. His reply still shocks me today! He said, approvingly, that this was all part of the plan to derail that business. People were conspiring to prevent decisions being made.

How do you know if something is broken? I think something is broken if it doesn’t perform according to the maker’s promises.

When you think of church meetings that use parliamentary processes for their decision-making, what kinds of behaviors and attitudes do you see? What actions are valued and affirmed?

What I see, in the vast majority of cases, is:

  • people do not listen to each other
  • praise for people who criticise and pull down the opposition
  • political manoeuvring to prevent understanding, participation and power for others
  • cutting off the debate before all voices have been heard
  • privilege given to certain cultures, gender, ages and backgrounds
  • people are hurt
  • selfishness
  • lack of the joy and hopefulness of life in the Spirit
  • no consensus as to the will of Christ for his church
  • decisions don’t get made

What should we expect?

Through Jesus Christ, God has created us as a new community. This is a community that is identified by love, kindness, lack of envy, pride and boasting, it honors others, rejoices in the truth, protects one another, and is trusting and hopeful (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). It is also a community that respects, needs and values the contribution that all members can make to its life. (1 Corinthians 12: 12-26). This is not an ideal to which we are invited to aspire. This is a God given reality in which we are expected to live, in the strength of the Holy Spirit.

What do you see?

What do you see in church meetings? Do the behaviors, values and culture match what you think a Christian community should look like? Do your church meetings reflect the maker’s promises about how Christian community operates? Do you make decisions that people respect and can work with? If not, then your way of making decisions is broken.

A discernment process that fails to take seriously the system in which it operates will have limited capacity for spiritual vitality. I invite you to look at the way you organise your meetings and make your decisions. Do they have a deforming or transforming effect on Christian character?

Please share your experiences of church business meetings. Tell us about when you have seen them support, or not support, the true character of a Christian community .



Agendas – a road map for discernment

Why we have agendas for meetings

Church business agendas are not like a grocery shopping list. I use shopping lists to remind me what I need to buy. I rush up and down the aisles ticking them off. Usually I don’t notice other people unless it is to ask them to move out my way so that I can keep moving along with my jobs. Of course I do this in the nicest possible way. Thankfully church meetings never have this character.

Agendas are not a job list to get through as fast as humanly possible. Church meeting agendas are road maps to the destination called discernment. When followed they will lead us to the point where we can celebrate that we have discerned the will of Christ for his church in this time and place.

The road map to discernment will hold before us the final destination. It will take us to the resources that we need to get there. It will set out a sure and trusted route to take us along the right path.

What should be in an agenda?

Agendas will be full of spaces where prayer, Scripture, the people around us and the Holy Spirit can influence us.

Build your agenda with an eye to how you can grow the quality of your community life, hear one another well and respond well to what you hear.

Therefore agendas focus on process as much as task.

How to know when your agenda has worked.

Like all good road trips there is one question that is always asked. Are we there yet?

There are many signs that we have arrived at the point of faithful discernment. These are the wins that come from using consensus based discernment.

  • experiencing God’s presence with us in the meeting
  • feeling a sense of community among the group
  • achievement / movement on an issue and looking forward
  • growth as disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • confidence that we have arrived at the right place
  • energy and commitment towards doing what has been decided
  • spiritual renewal

The wins from an agenda that is focused on consensus building are in the quality of the fellowship that it creates among the participants, and their ability to implement the decisions that they have reached. Consensus based discernment helps us to be the church as God intends us to be.

Tell us what you include in your planning for in your church meetings. How do you know that you have nailed it?

6 things I wish they taught me about church meetings

When I went to theological college / seminary we didn’t have any lessons on how to run church meetings. There was no lesson that made clear that our church meetings were for seeking discernment. This is what I wish I  was taught.

  1. It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God

A possible notice for your church bulletin: the Holy Spirit will be leading the Property Committee on Wednesday at 7.30pm to discern the will of God for our congregation.

You don’t hold meetings in the church. Christ calls you into a community of discernment. God is calling you to listen and learn. God calls and gifts people to make decisions – for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Often people turn up at meetings  to pursue their own agenda. A lot of meetings are held just because it’s a certain date on the calendar. Many meetings end with people saying “What was the point of that meeting?!” Wrong, wrong, wrong. You don’t want those kinds of meetings!

Every church meeting is an opportunity to understand what Jesus wants from your community of faith. You are not involved in simple meetings. You are part of God’s unfolding drama of salvation. Church meetings are caught up in the divine purposes of God. Awesome!

  1. God’s will can be known

In your personal walk of faith you can probably tell lots of stories about how you have been led by God. The bedrock assumption of the Gospel is that it is possible to know the will of God. Great. So how do you live that out when you hold meetings in the church?

Apply your conviction that the will of God can be known to the way that you approach church meetings. What difference would it make if you planned and participated in meetings believing that God  makes it possible to have unity with God and to be obedient?

It is not always easy to discern the will of God. For the Christian – whether in private or as part of a group – there is no other game in town. If you are not interested in discerning the will of God for your community why do you even hold any church meetings?

All the barriers that prevent our capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, you are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God, and empowered to do so. God will lead you.

  1. Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment

The goal of Christian decision-making is to participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for you and your faith community. Therefore your meetings are spiritual exercises. Discernment (making Godly decisions together) is the goal and the purpose of church meetings.

Your church meetings have a spiritual destination – discernment. Spiritual results come from using spiritual resources. Unfortunately there are too many stories around the church about church meetings that look like the worst of political power plays and the serving of self-interest. Let’s not go there! Let’s think about spiritual results from using spiritual practices.

If you want to find God in your meetings then use the tools that God has given you – all the way through the meeting. Prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, deep listening to others, waiting for the Holy Spirit’s leading, confession, forgiveness, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are resources often neglected in church meetings.

You don’t make a cake by using ground beef and gravy. You don’t get discernment unless your meeting includes the spiritual practices that make discernment possible.

  1. Use Christian practices of discernment

If you had a lesson on running a meeting in seminary it probably involved turning up the section of the rule book that talked about moving motions, seconding, points of order, taking a vote, etc. In many churches the rules are based on parliamentary processes, and follow its style of debate and decision making. Robert’s Rules of Order is the classic presentation of this approach.

I know that God can use anyone to serve God’s purposes. The Persian emperor Cyrus comes to mind. But do we really want to put God to the test by continuing to use practices that have zero to do with Christian discernment?

What is Christian about trying to score points at the expense of another person? Where is the Holy Spirit in shutting down a debate by moving that “the motion be put”? How is the body of Christ built up when people’s contribution to discernment is crushed through political maneuvering? If knowledge is power; how is it Christian to keep the knowledge to a few and not share it with everyone? What is honorable, good and right about sowing confusion in order to prevent a motion being passed? How is the body of Christ respected when meeting procedures favor articulate, well educated, aggressive, usually, white men?

There is nothing inherently Christian in Robert’s Rules of Order. The people of God have a wonderful and effective set of resources and processes for discerning God’s will –  and most churches refuse to use them.

  1. What to do when people disagree

Call for the vote. That’s what I learned. So, if it is clear what the majority support just close down the debate. Being pastoral was shown by not letting arguments go on and on. It was considered to be for the best to not get people all riled up with each other.

I don’t see it that way any longer. If knowing the will of God were that easy then everyone would be doing it. It isn’t easy for theological, sociological, capacity and willingness reasons. We will have disagreement until we reach the mind of Christ on an issue. Disagreement – a lack of consensus – is a sign that our journey towards discernment is not over. Instead of being a reason to shut down the discussion, disagreement should be embraced as a place for the possibility of revelation.

Christ only has one mind on an issue. So expect that the Church, the Body of Christ, will come to agreement when it has discerned Christ’s will on a particular topic. Disagreement is the doorway through which insight will be found. Disagreement is not a problem to be fixed but a sign of the promised answer to be welcomed.

When there is disagreement

  • Create a culture of acceptance and safe spaces where people can feel secure in offering a different point of view.
    • Give people a chance to speak about what concerns them and their ideas.
    • Show respect.
    • Listen carefully and ask questions to help your understanding.
    • Be honest with yourself about why you have difficulty accepting another point of view.
    • Pray and seek the Holy Spirit.
    • Take your time – work in God’s time not yours.
    • Don’t rush.
  1. Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

When you are recruiting for your church Board or Committees what are you looking for? Many recruitment processes include a skills matrix so that all the important skills are included in church Committees. This is a very wise thing to do.

When that process has been completed there is no guarantee that you will have the ability to discern God’s will in your group. Without the right character and attitudes in the membership of your church Board you don’t have a community of discernment. You have sets of skills sitting on seats.

Group discernment is impossible if the people in the group do not know how to practice discernment in their own life. Cultivate in your Board members the character of humility. People who know everything cannot be led by the Holy Spirit.

Expect and seek evidence that your group members engage in the practices of personal spiritual discernment – solitude, silence, engaging the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, prayer, growing is self-awareness. A leader who is not able to discern what is going on inside of him/herself cannot discern what is true or false outside of him/her.

Having developed a life habit of seeking the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life you can join with others in this discernment of the Spirit in shared responsibilities.

Six things that I would have liked to learn earlier in my ministry:

  • It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God
    • God’s will can be known
    • Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment
    • Use Christian practices of discernment
    • What to do when people disagree
    • Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

What things have you learned about Christian group discernment? What questions or comments do you have on these approaches? Let’s learn together by hearing your comments.